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Peeling Off 剝落

Not just her former hands, but the whole scaffolding of the skeleton in front of her had become a Jenga tower whose crucial block had been pulled away from the bottom

Editor’s Note: The following story by Hsin-Hui Lin 林新惠 is part of a notebook Queer Time, co-edited by Ta-wei Chi and Ariel Chu, which gathers contemporary queer Taiwanese literature in translation. To read the full Queer Time collection, visit its home here.

To read Ye (Odelia) Lu’s English translation, click here.

剝落

  應該只是搔癢而已,卻連著皮肉也剝落下來。

  更準確地說,是右手背皮膚及其下每一層筋肉都順著她搔癢的手勢掀起,她再撕下那一塊皮肉,不痛不癢,不著一滴血,像剝去一片蛋殼。大概一張郵票大小,透過沒有皮肉的凹洞,可以直視自己的骨頭,以及週邊皮膚斷面。她試著伸張手指,那些可以透視的肌肉與筋脈便緩緩抽動。再把剝落的皮肉對準裂口擺回去,但手心轉上手背朝下,那皮肉又沉沉地落下。

  落在她下班順道去夜市買的滷味塑膠袋口。袋內還剩幾塊豬頭皮,袋口卻擋著自己鮮紅的皮肉,她隱隱有些反胃。怎麼回事?或許應該掛急診?還是乾脆左手幫右手拍照,上傳,拜問臉書大神?或者私訊?她瞬間想過許多名字,三不五時見個面的,但不知怎地在這樣的時刻,沒一個名字可靠。心思湧上來,醞釀喉頭,想喊一個人,誰都好,最近的人。沒有成形的呼喊堵塞呼息,直到她的視線環繞室內一圈最後停在茶几對面,電視機內女主播。那是離她最近的人了,每晚八點伴她吃快煮麵配路邊隨便買的小菜的人。

  一口氣倏地洩盡。總有這樣的瞬間,比任何時刻都明白,自己是一個人吃飯。一個人吃飯,一只鍋盛水下麵撒調味料丟幾片青菜就端到茶几開電視,路上買的外食直接以筷子伸進塑膠袋挾。萬萬不可裝盤,不可費心經營,越豐盛越空虛,她猶記得最近那次40歲生日,特意提早下班,買菜備料為自己做了兩菜一肉一湯。掀開電鍋,白煙撲上臉,一滴淚就這麼沒來由地滑墜下頷。她十分警覺抹去,迅速抓來手機,拍照,「一年一次,好好為自己煮一餐」,選擇感受「覺得幸福」,上傳臉書。後來便有一百多個讚和一個晚上回覆不完的生日祝福。

  自己那塊皮肉暫且推到旁邊,鍋裡剩下的湯水麵條倒進滷味塑膠袋,困惑和焦慌還沒退去,但她忽然感覺比起釐清自己身上發生的事,收拾一餐的剩餘似乎更加踏實。只是正當扭開水龍頭,她又納悶起來:手背那缺裂是傷口嗎?深及見骨的傷口可以碰水嗎?

  於是匆匆下樓進便利商店,找到手套。結帳時非常謹慎把右手藏進外套口袋,左手伸出接過發票時,瞥了店員,僅僅一眼就凝結了她。

  年輕男孩的整圈脖子都沒有皮膚,只存骨頭。和她一樣,斷面異常齊整,她想男孩可能也拿那一圈剝離下來的厚重頸肉沒辦法。

  男孩看懂她的眼神,擺擺頭,指著扭動的骨節,「突然就這樣了,剛剛上班前穿制服的時候,它就這樣,」男孩做了撕扯的動作,「自己順著我脖子掉下來喔,幹,我還以為我要死了勒。」

  她訥訥地點頭,想著如果方才自己不只是掉落手背上那一小片,而是像男孩這樣,她會如何。「結果好像也沒怎樣,碰水也不會怎樣喔,水會順著骨頭流下來,到了這邊」,他的手指沿著骨節比劃,到了鎖骨上的皮肉橫切面,「就會流過這面,再回到沒事的地方。」

  所以手套白買了。不過她忽然慶幸自己住在擁擠的台北市區獨居,無論分租套房被困在再怎麼黯淡的巷弄裡,卻只要幾步路就能抵達永恆亮著的便利商店。那樣一間去處偶爾讓她拼湊胡亂的一餐,偶爾,像今天這樣,讓她遇上一個二十幾歲的便利商店打工男孩——一個離她那麼遙遠的人,卻和她經驗這麼相似的事,光是明白這點,就令她安心許多。

她收起手套,洗滌鍋筷,右手背沒特別感覺,男孩所言不假,她又安心一些。剝落的一小片膚肉收進密封罐,睡前她舉起右手背端詳,或許明天這個現象就會占據所有新聞版面,臉書上會有各種「你身上掉了一塊肉嗎?醫生揭密五大原因」之類的內容農場文章。她淺淺一抿,就這麼含著安心睡去。

  不過隔天仍和昨天一樣,尋常地運轉。一早打開新聞,和昨晚不同的女主播,右臉頰缺損一塊,頰骨露出,但神情沒有絲毫異樣。女主播講的是和昨晚雷同的,台灣電視新聞獨有的無聊內容——行車記錄器的翻拍影像、網路傳言的繪聲繪影、各地餐廳的置入行銷報導——但偏偏沒有任何關於身體少一塊肉的新聞。通勤時她稍稍多留意周遭,對座的女子與其說是撐著右臉打盹,不如說是捧著右邊牙齒和臉骨;身旁站著穿西裝的男子,左手一伸,沒有皮肉的手腕探出袖口,手錶扣在骨頭上,扣到最緊了仍然鬆鬆地垂吊,錶面因重量轉到下方,男子只得將手腕舉起,由下往上看時間。然而捷運仍然是台北捷運的平常樣貌,車廂寧靜地擠滿所有上班族的疲憊與不情願,唯一的聲音是循環播放的到站鈴聲、提醒讓座和禁止飲食的宣導。明亮而光潔的捷運車廂內,惺忪甦醒的台北市區裡,似乎發生了什麼卻又彷彿什麼也沒發生,尋常與淡然熨平她心底的波折,讓她原本緊蓋在右手背上的左手,逐漸鬆懈。

直到她抵達信義區高聳的辦公大樓,進辦公室,按指紋打卡,再收手時,赫見右手大拇指的皮肉就這麼黏在指紋辨識機上,她才又心慌起來,趕緊取下,收進口袋。忽然,比起自己又散落一些皮膚,她更加在意:如果十隻指頭的皮肉都掉光了,該怎麼打卡上班?

  回覆客戶郵件時她數度因此分神,切換視窗,來到臉書。捲軸不停下拉,這才發現許多好友的自拍照,那些「Ya」的手勢,早已是兩隻細瘦白骨。而臉書不愧為大神,已讀她的困惑,回覆以贊助廣告,「找回原本的自己!」顯示圖內為一女子正面,左側臉盡去皮肉,只剩一只孤獨的眼珠。女子手捧人頭模型,模型左側臉即是女子遺失的左臉,只差那顆還留在女子身上的眼珠。模型的右側臉僅俱形體而無面容,一如服裝店櫥窗中的人形模特兒。

  點進連結,才曉得是針對皮肉脫落者設計的人體模型,讓人將自己剝落的皮肉按相應部位黏合上人體模型。貼上人體模型的皮肉不會再掉落,且每塊皮肉之間的隙縫也會在接合時完美修補,不殘跡痕。有各種體型可選擇,也可單買某一部位。像她擔憂的打卡,便有一款商品為大拇指模型,買家只需將剝落的大拇指皮膚貼上,帶著上班,指紋打卡就不再是問題。加價還能在模型一端鑽進鑰匙圈,「可以扣在鑰匙串上,攜帶方便,不易遺忘!」商品描述如是。

  於是她又回覆幾封信,再切換到人體模型的官網;打報表打得眼花撩亂時,又轉到網站四處點閱;吃午餐時細讀付款、配送、退換貨問題;晚上吃過飯,她忽然意識到不遠的將來可能再也用不到面膜,便趕緊拆開週年慶買來的囤貨,面膜的精華液涼冷貼膚,她掀開筆電,進入網頁,把一個人體模型放入購物車。

  接著是一連串繁冗的資料填寫,身高、體重、臂長、腿長、身長、腳長,根據購買者的體型業者將配送最合適的模型。她依序填寫,拿布尺測量,十分誠實,她並不奢望最終那個黏著自己皮膚的模型,要成為廣告明星那樣的身材。只是到了最後一個選項,她仍然不夠誠實,或者說,她太誠實了,誠實得避不了那一閃而過的念頭。不曾和男性交往過的她,在性別欄位中,點選「男」。

  結帳的瞬間,她鬆鬆一哂,沒留意敷得太久的面膜逐漸刺癢皮膚。一個人走不完的漫長日子總算等到一個會陪伴自己的男人。

  一週後她終於等到快遞的鈴聲,開門簽收,美工刀劃開封帶,搬開紙箱,一位和自己等高的男人站立眼前。這一週她為男人買了幾套衣物,自己則又剝除了些許皮膚。手背上的裂口一面向手臂蔓延直至肩膀,一面則沿著五指翻掀,現在的她整面手背、整隻手臂皆見骨。她不以為意,甚且有些雀躍,極輕柔將膚肉貼上男人的右手背及手臂,雙手環握男人的上手臂,似愛撫他人,又像疼惜自己,不同指不同力道,塑成男人的肌肉線條。執起男人豐厚的右掌,壓上那塊自己右手的拇指肉,復將男人的拇指握著,讓男人在她的手心畫押她自己的指紋。她稍稍將男人墊高,高度正好她側臉一靠就是男人的模型左胸,她闔上雙眼,靜聽,兩個人,一種心搏。

  她左手挽著男人的右手臂,對鏡端詳,十分了然,自己殘留的越少,男人成全的越多。但那又如何。她有骨,男人有肉,他們共有一雙眼一顆心,待一切完成,他們會是全世界最完美的戀人。她理理及肩的髮,自拍臉龐依在男人的臂膀,上傳臉書,選擇感受「覺得被愛」,兩百多個讚。

  有了男人的日子,她的步履一天比一天輕快,她不細究這是心頭上的輕,還是一日日剝落一些自己的輕。一日盡處回到家,摁開燈,點亮客廳的同時也照見男人逐漸完整的模樣。她不再一回家便頹靡地張羅大同小異的晚餐,而是先湊到男人身邊,將自己今天又褪下的皮肉輕輕按壓上男人的身體。她的裂缺似蛇竄,從手臂鑽到右鎖骨頂端又分流,向上撕去右半邊的臉、頭皮和頭髮、再向後至後腦勺、後頸、肩背;向下,她的右側胸乳、肚腹、右大腿、小腿、腳掌、向後繞至後腳跟、臀,逐一脫落;分流的裂口交會於後腰。彷彿身體正中有一條壓印好的虛線,而誰將她的右側沿虛線剪下。

  男人的右側則沿著虛線成形。當然她沒忽略生理上的差異,稍稍使力推壓男人過於豐厚的胸乳,那多餘的皮肉便向下挪移、垂墜,像一場緩慢的浪推到男人的下體。她見狀收手,那皮肉殘著她的力道,逐漸包覆原為透明模型的生殖器,而後止住。她滿意地看著自己的男人成為男人,伸出還有皮膚的左手,似有若無撫觸,再順著肌理往上,畫著只有自己識得的線條。恰到好處的腹肌和胸肌,挺拔的肩,鎖骨,喉結,手指停在男人僅有右半邊的嘴唇。雙手攬下男人的脖子,她僅存的左半臉湊向男人新生的右半臉,稍稍墊起腳尖,唇抵達唇,她親吻男人亦親吻自己。

  四十歲終於擁有了初吻,同時也是最後一吻。她鬆手退下時,左唇也從她的臉上鬆脫,連著左臉頰,直到耳際,都被初吻的甜膩扯裂下來。貼上左唇和左頰,男人看來在向她微笑。她愛憐地撫摸男人完整的唇,那是生殖器之外男人第一個完整的身體部位。

  從今而後,她遺落的,都會成為使男人完整的。她的左側頭皮脫落,男人便擁有一頭完整的及肩長髮,她為男人理成短髮;她的左側肩和背脫落,男人便挺起完整寬闊的背,她已成骷髏的側臉靜靜靠上,覺得自己是笑著的,但舉起手機自拍時才曉得只有骨頭的臉部沒有表情可言;將自己的左胸腹貼上男人的左胸腹,而後如上次一般推擠,男人的下體又多覆一層皮肉,似乎又雄偉了些,她看著有些羞怯,僅管其實一臉白骨無處讓那一抹赧紅浮現。

  再後來男人有了左腿,再後來是左上手臂,左手臂,左手背,小指,無名指,中指,食指。最後一次打卡下班,拾起掛在指紋辨識機上的左手拇指皮肉,她沒走出辦公室,而是走向自己的座位,上人事系統把積累許久的休假一次申請完畢。近日她發覺那些全身皆成骷髏的同事都是這樣的,或休或辭,幾乎再也沒見著。她從信義區高樓層的辦公室走進地底的捷運,在通勤巔峰期和人群彼此推搡,這才發現彼此擦觸的不是皮膚,而是骨頭。骨頭和骨頭之間相互敲擊,像是沒有音高的木琴,空蕩的聲音淹沒了地底的捷運月台。一整個城市的人,僅存骨架,表情和形態隨著皮肉一起消失,只留下一對眼球骨碌碌茫然地張望。這麼多人發生了這麼類似的事,卻沒有一絲集體恐慌,沒有任何疑懼。捷運進站,所有離奇都被輾得平淡無常。她在一片骨頭敲撞聲中進了車廂,看進窗戶倒影,才驚覺成為骷髏的自己和那些成為骷髏的行人,除了高矮差異,幾乎難以辨別彼此。她想著其他人是否也悄悄在家裡存放另一個自己,或者像她那樣依偎一個不是自己的自己。

  她回到家,為男人貼撫最後一塊皮肉。背向窗子,夜晚風涼,秒針躡步,男人完整了。這念頭擂著她的心搏。同上次拼起右手大拇指一樣,將男人的拇指按在手心,她不確定那薄薄的脈震來自她一無所有的手骨,還是男人飽滿豐厚的拇指。但她倒很警醒,沒有幻想男人會在拼湊完整的瞬間開始移動。那是童話,她比誰都清楚自己活在每一刻都被蝕損一些的現實。只是如今她被蝕損成完整的白骨,男人被黏塑成完整的皮囊,一切都結束了,卻怎麼空蕩一如什麼都沒開始?

  她稍稍仰望,視線跌入男人深黝的眼眶,閴黑,寂靜,彷弱黑洞吞噬所有。她這才想起,不知男人眼裡的自己如何,一直以來,都只是她單方凝望男人。或許這才是一切空蕩的根源,這麼空曠的單人套房這麼多個日子,臉書上有幾百個好友瞥見自己的發文,現實中卻沒有一雙眼睛注視自己。

  於是食指和拇指手骨曲成夾娃娃機的夾子,向眼球逼近,細長手骨鑽進眼球和眼眶的間隙,收緊,再小心往外拖,瞬間她眼前一暗,眼球握在手心,手指摸索男人的身體,每天愛撫的肌肉線條和身型輪廓成了導引的路,她的指尖一路向上,偶爾迷途,但終究達抵空無的眼窩。再把眼球滾到手指,眼球湊到眼眶的邊緣便輕易滾入。

  瞬間她眼前一亮,看清一切的同時,也看著探向自己眼睛的手骨墜落。不只手骨,眼前一具骷髏像疊疊樂底處被抽走一塊關鍵的積木,倏地傾斜,倒塌,白骨墜成一陣驟雨,碎散滿地。

  成為男人的她還來不及驚詫,只想著要趕緊為自己撿骨,收藏好,說不準來日又會有網路商家販賣供人拼裝骨頭的商品。她想彎下身,而正是這念頭讓她發現自己的凝結。她無法移動。男人的身體畢竟只是貼有皮囊的塑膠模型。所有現狀讓已然僵固的自己更加僵固。她成為一具無法移動的男人,甚且,她愣愣望向視線所及那袋為男人買的衣服,她還是一具無法移動的裸男。

  或許模型的說明書上有相關的警語?或許那些再也沒來上班的同事都成了一個個囚禁在家、貼有自己皮膚的塑膠模型?還有,方才那一陣傾塌,會不會壓壞躲在骨架裡的心?她不曉得,不曉得的事太多,糾結成一聲呼喊,她想喊一個人,任何人,沒有成形的名字在塑膠中空的體內四處碰壁,湧向無法張開的嘴,她甚至連發出聲音的聲帶都沒有。更何況單人套房內從來沒有另一對耳朵接收她的呼喊,沒有另一雙眼睛關注她的情形。

  只有腳邊碎散一地的白骨。夜風襲來,捲亂碎骨,滾出長長的低吟。誰,誰都好,快把窗戶關上,她想。我的骨頭要散了,而且我好冷,好冷。

Peeling Off

  She thought it was just an itch, but now the whole patch of skin was peeling off. 

  More precisely, the skin on the back of her right hand was lifted by the motion of her scratching, along with every layer of muscle beneath. She tore the piece of flesh away and it did not hurt or tingle; there was not a single blotch of blood, as if she had only peeled off a chip of an eggshell. Through the sunken indent about the size of a stamp, she could see her own bone and the stratum of fractured human skin around it. As her fingers stretched, those perceivable muscles and tendons jerked with them. She tried to insert the peeled flesh back into place, only for it to fall off when she turned over her hand. 

  The shard of meat landed on the plastic bag of braised pork she had just gotten from a night market, sticking to the edge of the bag and overlooking the slices of pigskin left inside. It made her somewhat nauseated. What was going on? Should she go to the ER? Or should her left hand take a picture of her right, upload it, and seek help from people on Facebook? Should she DM someone? Names of people crossed her mind, some of whom she met every now and then, but somehow no one seemed reliable enough at a moment like this. Mixed feelings gushed up to her throat and started brewing on the tip of her tongue; she wanted to call someone, anyone, anyone who was closest to her. Shapeless cries clogged her breath, and her gaze scanned the room until it fell opposite the coffee table, onto the anchorwoman in the rectangle of the TV screen. That was the person closest to her, who kept her company every night at eight as she consumed instant noodles and the side dishes she picked up from the streets on her way home. 

  A sigh escaped her like the air from a deflating balloon. There were always moments like this that made her more aware than ever that she was eating alone. Not just eating alone, but also boiling water with a single pot and throwing in the noodles, the seasoning packets, and a few pieces of leafy greens before sitting down at the coffee table, turning on the TV, and digging her chopsticks straight into a plastic bag of street takeout. Never arrange the food on a plate, never bother to fix things up—the more lavish they looked, the emptier they were. She still remembered her fortieth birthday not long ago, when she had purposefully gotten off work early, gone grocery shopping, and made herself a meal of one soup, one meat entrée, and two veggie dishes. Warm, white steam from the rice cooker had engulfed her face when she’d popped open the lid, and a tear, coming from a place unbeknownst to her, had rolled down her chin. A habitual vigilance had made her wipe it away quickly before she’d grabbed her phone, taken a picture, typed “Once a year, cooked a nice meal for myself,” picked the feeling “blessed,” and uploaded the post to Facebook. She had received a hundred likes and countless birthday wishes that had taken her more than a night to respond to. 

  With the chip of flesh shoved aside for now, she poured the remaining soup and noodles into the plastic bag. Though the confusion and uneasiness persisted, she suddenly felt that rather than trying to figure out what had happened to her, cleaning up the leftovers seemed to be a more reassuring necessity. Even so, when she turned on the faucet, she couldn’t help but wonder: was it a wound? What would happen if a bone-deep wound got wet? 

  So she went downstairs to the convenience store and found some gloves. At the checkout, she deliberately hid her right hand in her coat pocket while her left reached for the receipt. She cast a glance at the clerk, and one look was more than enough to freeze her on the spot.  

  There was no skin on the entire region of the young boy’s neck, only bones. Like hers, the surface of the wound was oddly clean. She imagined that the boy, too, probably hadn’t known what to do with the ring of neck meat that had stripped off by itself. 

  The boy read her eyes. He shook his head and pointed to the joints turning this way and that. “It happened all of a sudden. I was putting on my uniform for the shift today and it just”—he made a ripping gesture—“fell off my neck like that. Man, I thought I was gonna die.” 

  She nodded blankly, picturing what she would have done if it hadn’t been a small piece of her hand that she’d just lost, but rather something similar to the boy’s scenario. “It looks okay though, like, no big deal if it gets wet. The water’ll just run down the bones and—” his finger traced the joints and arrived at the flat, horizontal plain above his clavicles. “Flow through this surface and go elsewhere.” 

  So she’d gotten the gloves for nothing. But an unexpected onset of gratitude took hold of her: she was glad that she lived by herself in cramped downtown Taipei, and that no matter how much her sublet studio was hemmed in by the dim alleyways, the eternally lit convenience store was only a few steps away. Such a place sometimes allowed her to cobble together a casual meal, and sometimes, like today, let her bump into a convenience store boy in his early 20s—someone whose life was so far away from hers, but who was sharing such a similar experience. The mere understanding of this relieved her a great deal. 

  She tucked the gloves away and washed the dishes, all the while not sensing anything in particular on the back of her right hand. Seeing that the boy had been telling the truth, she felt a little more relieved. After sealing the fragment of flesh in a mason jar, she lay on the bed and stared at her hand raised in the air. Perhaps tomorrow this phenomenon would cover every inch of the news pages, and clickbait links titled “Has a chunk of meat fallen off your body? Medical professionals reveal the top five reasons” would be everywhere on Facebook. She pursed her lips lightly and fell into an untroubled sleep. 

  Yet the following day came around the same as yesterday, like a well-functioning cog. The anchorwoman for the morning news, different from the one last night, was missing a part on her right cheek—exposing the cheekbone—despite bearing an expression that betrayed nothing unusual. The delivered news was almost identical to that from last night, featuring exclusively boring content that could only be found on Taiwanese news channels—dashcam recordings, vivid descriptions of Internet rumors, restaurants’ reports on various advertising strategies—only missing the news about anyone’s body losing a lump of meat. When commuting, she paid extra attention to her surroundings: the woman sitting across from her was not so much dosing off with her face propped up by her right hand as she was holding her teeth and facial bones in place. A man in a suit standing nearby stretched his left arm, and a fleshless wrist poked out of the cuff. The watch he wore had its strap buckled to the tightest hole, yet it still hung loosely from the bone with a shifting weight that drew the watch’s face downward, so that the man had to raise his wrist to read the time from below. Nonetheless, the Taipei metro was its usual self—the cars were filled to the brim with office workers’ silent fatigue and reluctance, the only sounds being the incessant ring of arrival announcements and reminders about offering seats to others and prohibited behaviors like eating or drinking. In the clean, bright metro car, in the waking, blurry-eyed city, something seemed to have happened, and yet nothing seemed to have happened. A sense of normalcy and nonchalance ironed out the wrinkles in her heart, loosening the grip of her left hand on her right.  

  It was not until she arrived at the sky-high office building in Xinyi District, walked into the office, scanned her fingerprint on the employees’ biometric time clock, pulled back, and saw the skin of her right thumb stuck to the machine, that she grew nervous again. She tore the piece of skin down and stuffed it into her pocket. Suddenly, instead of worrying about the additional loss of skin, she wondered how she could punch in for work if there was no more flesh left on all of her fingertips. 

  Thoughts like that distracted her as she replied to clients’ emails, prompting her to switch tabs and land on Facebook. The scrollbar kept rolling down and down and passing many selfies taken by her friends. She realized from the photos that her friends’ scissor hands, two fingers making peace signs, had long since become two thin, bare bones. And Facebook—being Facebook—had already read her confusion and responded with sponsored ads: “Click to reclaim your original self!” The image showed the frontal view of a woman whose skin and flesh on the left face were all gone; only a lone eye remained. The woman cradled a head model in her arms; its left face was exactly the one the woman had lost, minus the eyeball that was still intact on the woman’s body. The model’s half-face was only a shape, lacking character, similar to the face of a shop window mannequin.  

  From the page that popped up, she learned that these were lifelike mannequins designed for people with fallen flesh so that the latter could paste their skin and muscle onto the corresponding parts of the former. Once put on, the flesh would never come off, and every tissue would align seamlessly with each together. There were multiple body types available, or you could purchase a part separately. For instance, to combat her punch-in situation, there was a thumb model; customers only needed to press the flaked-off skin onto the model, bring it to work, and enjoy a smooth, carefree scan. If you paid extra, you could even have a hole drilled in at one end of the model. “Why not add it to your keychain? Easy to carry, hard to forget!” the item description went.  

  So she shifted between client emails and the mannequin website; when statistical reports strained her eyes, she clicked the mouse here and there on the website, looking at models; while eating lunch, she attentively went through the payment, shipping, and return terms; after dinner—and a sudden realization that she might no longer be able to use facial masks in the near future—she unwrapped a mask from the stocks she’d gotten during the brand’s anniversary sale. As a blanket of cool liquid essence fit onto her skin, she opened her laptop, entered the website, and added a model to the cart. 

  What followed was a long-winded list of information to fill out: height, weight, arm length, torso length, leg length, foot length… The supplier would deliver the most fitting model based on each customer’s physique. She filled everything out in order, measuring herself with sewing tape and utter honesty; she did not really expect that her model—who would have her own skin glued on top—could have the body of those celebrities in commercials. Except she was not honest enough, or perhaps she was too honest, so much so that she could not shake off the fleeting idea that crossed her mind at the last question. As someone who had never dated a man, she ticked the box that marked “Male” under the section for sex.  

  The moment she confirmed the order, she broke into a half-smile, not noticing the mask prickling her skin after being left on for too long. After all those lonesome days she could not see the end of, here finally came a man who would be by her side from this moment onward. 

  The doorbell for delivery rang a week later. She opened the door, signed for the package, slid a utility knife over the tape, and flipped open the cardboard lids. A man of her height stood in front of her. In the past week, she had bought some clothes for the man while she had shed more skin. The tear on the back of her hand had crawled all the way to her shoulder in one direction and threatened to uproot her nails in the other, leaving bones to be the only things discernible on her arm and the back of her hand. She was oblivious to this change, even in good spirits, for she could finally—in a gentle manner—fix the flesh onto the man’s arm and the back of his hand. She wrapped both hands around his upper arm as if caressing him and, at the same time, nursing herself. The different degrees of strength she exerted onto her fingers became the sculpting force that formed the curves of the man’s muscle. She pressed the fallen flesh from her right thumb onto his now plump hand, cocooning his thumb, and let him make the mark of her own fingerprints in the palm of her hand. She raised the model slightly taller with a cushion so that her face could rest on his left chest, where she closed her eyes and listened: two people, one heartbeat.  

  With the man’s right arm in her left, she studied both bodies in the mirror, fully conscious of what was going to happen: the less skin remained on her, the more complete he would be. So what; she had bones, he had flesh, they shared two eyes and one heart; when everything was finished, they would be the most beautiful couple in the whole wide world. She fixed her hair and took a snapshot of her cheek pillowed on his arm, uploaded it to Facebook, and tabbed on the feeling “loved” for the post. It got over two hundred likes.  

  With the man in her life now, her footsteps grew lighter and lighter every day; she learned to stop wondering whether it was a lightness in her mind or a lightness in her flaking self. She developed a new routine of coming home after work, turning on the switch, and letting the light illuminate the living room as well as the sight of the man’s gradual completion. She no longer dragged herself to prepare dinners that were more or less the same, but rushed to his side as soon as she walked through the door and gently attached the bits of herself that had come off that day onto him. The rip on her body traveled like a slithering snake, from the arm to the top of the right clavicle, and then unfurled: upward, it tore apart the right side of her face, scalp, and hair before turning to the back of her head, neck, shoulder, and back; downwards, it passed her right breast, abdomen, thigh, calf, sole of the foot, and her heel, hip… parts of her body had all stripped off one after another. These two tributaries eventually merged at the back of her waist. It was as if there were a dotted line at the center of her body, predetermined and printed neatly, along which someone was cutting her right flank off. 

  The man’s right, on the other hand, took form along the same line. Of course, she did not neglect their physical differences. When she gave a firm push downward, the excessive flesh on the man’s overly thick breasts began to sag, resembling a slow wave that advanced toward his lower body. Seeing this, she let go of her hands, and the flesh, containing her residual strength, gradually enclosed the model’s translucent reproduction of male genitalia before coming to a halt. She watched with satisfaction as her man became a man; her left hand, still possessing all of its skin, stroked him so softly that the sensation almost seemed phantom. It then climbed up along the texture of his skin, drawing lines only she recognized. The strapping chest and abdomen with an exact amount of burliness, the upright shoulders, collar bone, Adam’s apple… her fingers paused at the right half of the man’s lips, the only half that existed. Standing on tiptoe, she hooked onto his neck and brought him lower, before her remaining left face approached his newborn one. A pair of lips reached another. She kissed the man and kissed herself.  

  Her first kiss at the age of forty, though it was also the last. When she let go, her lips came loose from her face along with her left cheek up to the ear; they were all ripped off by the sickly sweetness of this first kiss. Once these fragments went onto his face, the man gave the impression of smiling at her. Her fingers brushed past his full lips; that was the man’s first body part—except for the genitals—that was complete. 

  From then on, what she lost became what made the man full. Her left scalp peeled off, and the man inherited a cascade of hair, its tips touching his shoulders; she trimmed it short for him. The skin on her left shoulder came stripping off and became a part of the man’s full, broad back. She could feel her now-skeletal face grinning when it met his, yet it wasn’t until she raised her phone for a selfie that she remembered a skull did not have any expression to begin with. After transferring her left torso to the man, she shoved the flesh downward like she had last time. The layer of skin that swaddled his organs turned thicker, looking as if they had grown a little bigger, more imposing. She felt sheepish at the sight, although her blush failed to materialize into color against the ghastly white of her bones. 

  Later on, the man began to own a left leg, then a left upper arm, lower arm, back of the left hand, little finger, ring finger, middle finger, and index finger. The last time she clocked out of work, she removed the left thumb flesh that clung to the biometric machine and, instead of leaving the office, marched back towards her seat. She applied for a vacation through the HR system, cashing in the days she had been saving up all at once. She noticed recently that those colleagues who had turned into full-scale skeletons had all been like this, either taking a break or quitting, never to be seen again. During the evening rush hour, she descended from the Xinyi District high-rise to the metro beneath and, amidst jostling with the crowd, discovered that it was not skin that everyone was rubbing against each other, but bones. Bones rattled against bones, producing a hollow sound like that of a pitchless xylophone, drowning out the underground platforms. A whole city full of people in their skeletal frames, expressions and shapes gone with the disappearance of skin and flesh; the only things left behind were the eyeballs in their sockets, rolling to perceive their surroundings, yet at a loss. There was no sign of collective panic even though this strange thing had happened to so many people, no disbelief, no fear whatsoever. The metro pulled into the station, and all the peculiarities were flattened into day-to-day normality. She entered the car, sandwiched between the clattering percussion of bones on bones, before being startled by her reflection—except for the variation in height, she could barely tell herself apart from the rest of the passersby that had become raw skeletons. She wondered whether others also kept a secret replica of themselves at home or, like her, nestled in the arms of a self that was not their own. 

  When she arrived home, she pieced the last bit of flesh onto the man. The night breeze swept in, and she could feel its crisp temperature and hear the steady, marching tick of the clock. The man was complete. This thought hammered her heart. She drove the man’s left thumb into her palm in the same manner as before, not sure if the faint thudding came from the bare bones on her hand or the solid bulk of meat that was now the man’s thumb. But she was ever-so-wary not to fantasize about the man beginning to move from the moment of his completion. That was the stuff of fairy tales, and she knew better than anyone that she was living in a reality where she was being eroded every second. It was just that, now that she had been gnawed into bones and the man had been molded into shape through a suit of skin, everything was over. Why did she still feel so empty, as if nothing had even begun? 

  As she looked up, her gaze tumbled into the darkness that was the man’s eye sockets: cavernous, soundless, a black hole swallowing all matter. Only then was she reminded that she’d never known what she looked like in his eyes, since all this while, the gaze had been one-sided. Perhaps this was the root of the emptiness. She’d spent so many days in this single studio, received hundreds of views on her posts on Facebook, yet not a single pair of eyes fixated on her in real life.  

  So her thumb and index fingers bent into two claw machine pincers and neared her eyes. The thin phalanx bones bore into the space between her eyes and eye sockets, tightened, and dragged out her eyeballs. Pitch darkness took over her vision. Her fingers, safeguarding the eyeballs in her palms, searched for direction on the man’s body, guided by the definition of muscle and bodily contours she touched every day. Though she occasionally got lost, the tip of her fingers eventually made their way up to his hollow sockets. Her fingers brought the two small orbs forward to the rim of those openings, and the eyes slipped in without effort.  

  The moment light poured into her eyes, she saw everything, as well as her finger bones falling. Not just her former hands, but the whole scaffolding of the skeleton in front of her had become a Jenga tower whose crucial block had been pulled away from the bottom; it tipped over and collapsed, breaking into a spattering shower, bones all over the ground. 

  Before she—now a man—could feel surprised, her only thought was to collect the bones and store them away, just in case there would be online retailers selling bone-assembling products in the future. She wanted to bend down, and it was this desire that made her discover the stiffness in herself. She couldn’t move. The man’s body was, after all, a plastic model coated in a sheet of skin. The situation only rendered her already-stiff self even stiffer. She had become a man who could not move; not only that—her gaze staggered to the bag of men’s clothes she bought—she was now also a naked man who could not move.  

  Perhaps there had been a warning label on the model’s instruction manual? Perhaps those colleagues who stopped showing up to work had all become plastic mannequins in their own skin, imprisoned at home? 

  And would the collapse of her old body have crushed the heart that was hiding beneath her ribs? She didn’t know; there was too much she didn’t know, and it all wrung into a silent cry. She wanted to call someone, anyone. Shapeless names darted to and fro in the hollowness of the synthetic body, hitting its walls, rushing to a mouth that could not be opened. She didn’t even have the vocal cords to make sounds with, let alone the fact that there had never been another pair of ears receiving her cries in this apartment, nor another set of eyes paying attention to her ups and downs, her triumphs and failures.

There was only a clutter of broken bones by her feet. The night breeze drifted in, stirring the ruins and rolling out a long, low moan. Someone, anyone, please close the window, she thought. My bones are scattering, and I’m cold. So cold.